Teddy

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Reading and writing opens the toolbox. Inside the toolbox are the tools to break down the doors and the walls keeping you from bigger worlds. 

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Meet Teddy. NOT the bear – I’m talking about my student who made me cry this morning. And this is why I want you to meet him; because I won’t be teaching English anymore very soon and I was reminded by this child of why I’m going to miss this job so very much.

Everyone always says they miss kids the most, that the kids are the best part of the job, and it’s true.

Because in all honestly, these kids cut us foreign English teachers who move here to Taiwan without any kind of teaching degree the biggest break of all: they let us be their teachers. They look up to us, they love us, they point and yell at us, they hug us, these little people who don’t even share my same culture or language. And in being their English teachers, we make more than they will make when they graduate from college with a degree in engineering or accounting.

Education can be a cruel system, and every teacher has a choice in how they will paint their students’ experience; the heart-gripping and complicated part of all this is that every student is different. You CANNOT treat them all the same.

Teddy is a triplet. He also happens to be the bigger and slower one of the three, but he’s still adorable. And he’s funny. But as many have already personally experienced, being slow causes problems in the classroom. In order to survive, the student must compensate. So Teddy compensates by being goofy, laughing, talking loudly about anything he can think of. He entertains the students, infuriates the teacher. Both student and teacher are familiar with this drill. In Teddy’s case as a kindergarten student, it’s very easy to push him to the side, throw toys at him to play with and ignore him for the most part as I push my other more capable students to soaring academic heights. But I know that’s not right. So I fought all my frustration and began to intentionally work with him one-on-one, EVEN though it would have been easier to let him play with a book he completely couldn’t read and EVEN though nobody holds me accountable to any academic standards at my school.

IMG_7595 This morning, Teddy started writing on his own. This child couldn’t write without tracing over fully written letters in the past; he can’t even draw pictures like his classmates can. So this whole school year I’ve been giving him the guidance he needs and endlessly coaching him on his ABCs. But this morning, as all of the students were in literal awe of the new books we just started, I decided to push Teddy to try it by himself. I didn’t let him say, “I don’t know” or “I can’t.” I told him to say, “Teacher, help me.” So he tried, and there on white space where no previous letter had been, he formed “A” and then “l” and then “i” and then “t” and then “T” and the “I.” And he was so happy. In fact, he and I were both so happy, that we clapped and cheered after every letter he formed at the beginning. Teddy was so happy that he declared, “I know!” and “I did it!” for his classmates to hear, and the other students gathered around accordingly and started encouraging Teddy with teacheresque words: “Great, Teddy!” “Good job!” “Teddy can do it!” “Teddy knows!” I composed myself, but tears had already pooled in my eyes.

This morning I felt how much I was going to miss teaching these kids. 

Teaching children to read and write is one of my favorite things, a favorite thing I’m going to lay to rest for a while starting February 17. Having only four more days of this job made this morning even more meaningful, like I’ve accomplished something my short year and a half of teaching at this school. My students can read and write now, and I’m going to miss watching and coaching and monitoring their progress.

And I will always remember Teddy. He likes to be my partner when he has no partner walking from the playground to the school in the mornings. And he rewarded me with the greatest reward any teacher can ask for; in a sense, this is the student who completed my mission as an English teacher here in Taiwan – for now anyway.

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For Teddy, and every other student I’ve watched cast off the training wheels and ride. This is also for my mom, through whom I inherited a spirit of teaching and who herself taught elementary school for 40+ years before retiring. (I plan to spend 40+ years doing something else.)

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Tears… and frustration

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I made a student cry in class the other week. I didn’t feel good about it at ALL.

This student has been a particularly frustrating case for me all year, and it’s not his fault. But unfortunately, as a crappy English teacher, I sometimes make it out to be that way.

I felt so awful and even more frustrated with myself as soon as I saw the tears well up in his eyes. I wanted to cry out of sheer frustration. I was running (am running) out of teaching juice – I was at a loss for all ideas or innovative methods that could have inspired understanding in this kid’s mind. I immediately changed the student’s task and relieved him of the dreaded writing assignment he couldn’t seem to complete correctly.

He needed a fresh start. I needed a fresh start. We both needed a change of scenery, and that is so true in most of life’s frustrating situations.

One of the reasons I started this blog was to give myself an outlet for a rather large portion of my life the last four years: teaching English. After 4 years of working for a WONDERFUL institution who has done nothing but take care of me and cater to the needs of my cultural differences and expectations, it’s time for a fresh start. 

No, I’m not going to stop teaching altogether. Unfortunately, I still can’t do that yet. I’m simply going to take up a different teaching position that requires less hours, less innovation and less initiative in the teaching process. I’ve faced many challenges in the classroom that have taught me so much about myself and human nature. It’s now time to simply teach for a smaller school with less administrative responsibilities and required meetings. If I don’t give myself a fresh start now, it will just be another year of tears and frustration.

I LOVE KIDS. I EVEN LOVE TEACHING. I simply need to put myself back in a place where I enjoy it again.

Teacher, I know!

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The possibly two most frustrating and refreshing words in the industry of education are I KNOWPut together, these words can create a rather powerful sentence. A very short sentence (V.S.S., as my high school English teacher taught me – Thank you, Mrs. Tyner!).  This V.S.S. can mean two very different things in the classroom. One, your student actually gets it for once. Two, your student is being a smart alec.

The latter has been my more common experience. However, when a student actually does get it…my world changes.

Today, I administer the Final Exam of the semester. Upon grading these tests, it doesn’t take long to sort out the academic wheat from the chaff. However, though I am forced to organize my students’ English abilities according to the institution’s standard, high scores aren’t always coming from the best attitudes in class. They’re simply coming from the students WHO KNOW.

One of my level 3 students took 2nd place in the Speech Contest this year. The school I currently work at alternates every year between Spelling Bee and Speech Contest, which keeps the events fresh and competition among students even, as not every student is a speller and not every student is a public speaker. His name is Tsung-Han, and I’ve known this kid since he was in Level 1, when I was also his teacher. He did his speech about Legos, and delivered it with so much personality and confidence that other kids in the school were quoting him! Those are the students who get it, and those are the students who make a teacher proud. 

Tsung-Hang’s test scores? Low at best. According to the educational standards of Taiwan’s society, they’re low. According to the American school system, he would simply be ranked as an average student. But this kid has gone from misspelling every word to getting a 100% on a spelling quiz. His performance in grammar and vocabulary has surprised even him. I’ve coached him in grammar, in hopes of seeing him rank a little bit higher on the academic ladder. But I didn’t coach him in the gestures and voice inflections and  funny noises that put him and and his speech up on top of the performance ladder.

Those talents and his motivation to win came from a heart WHO KNOWS what it takes, WHO KNOWS what is important and who has been told, “You is kind. You is smart. You is important.” Because THAT is what every students should know. 

So next time a students says, “Teacher, I know!” ask her exactly what it is she knows.

Commercial Break!

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When I’m not teaching English…

If you are in the Taipei area, come check out The Aroma, the Coffee Shop Church my friends and I are a part of here. We serve homemade muffins, sandwiches, soup and ….starting up again in April… COLD PASTA!

facebook.com/thearoma

Google maps:

Taipei City, Taiwan 108

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The Oath

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Higher-level English students should know better, and I’m sick and tired of my Level 3 class and their unnecessary Chinese. It’s just lazy or rebellious, and I don’t approve of either of those behaviors. So I showed them how serious I was today. I made them take an oath, and English-speaking oath.

I lined up all of my students outside and stood at the door with thick children’s dictionary in my hands. Each student had to lay their right hand on the dictionary and repeat these words after me:

“I, ________, hereby swear that I will only speak English in this classroom.”

The jokesters were sent to the back of the line until they took it seriously. There was definitely a higher sense of awareness about the language being spoken in the classroom after that. I think I may have them do a written oath that they all sign. This would be displayed on the wall and a memo about it would go home to all the parents.

It’s funny, because I have swiveled back and forth between a liberal and staunch position about Chinese in the classroom. It literally comes in mood swings for me. And this semester, I’m in an English mood! A staunch and strict one at that!

On a lighter note, I went in to work early today for a lunch meeting with the cram school’s CEO. It was a good meeting. The branch I work at is on overhaul this semester because from the business side of things numbers aren’t looking too hot. So we’re all working together to improve the situation. I really appreciate being a part of this process and am finding myself putting in more work than I would on a normal day. There’s something extremely gratifying about working for a company that calls upon their employees in times of trouble. I’m not  dispensable; we’re actually all significant pieces of a puzzle that make this whole machine run forward.

BigByte definitely gets the nomination for the morale-boosting award.

Enforcing an English-only policy in my classroom even when I myself have to fight the Chinese that’s become so naturally for me to say makes me think of parenting. (Parents, please correct me if I’m wrong!) In spite of the complaints and sassy attitudes of the children, and as annoying as that can be to put up with for the adult, there IS a reason for all of it. This is where the role of age enters the stage: the adult sees what the child does not.

So I will continue to be staunch and strict about English being the only language spoken in my classroom. Because I see what my students do not (the meetings, the money, the parent-school relations, the project planning, the curriculum and test writing). They just wouldn’t get it. And that’s OK, because they’re freaking kids!

Teacher’s Block

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You know you have teacher’s block when…

…student reports were due 12 hours ago and you’re still staring at the blank spaces on your computer screen with absolutely no motivation to type ANYTHING.

…the vocabulary words you’re required to teach that week BORE you.

…there’s a stack of unmarked test papers on your desk that needed to be marked last week.

…you find it more entertaining to put all the students in time out rather than teach them anything.

…you don’t bother explaining the question to the poor kid so you just continually send him back to his desk to correct his mistakes until he finally copies another student’s work and returns with the correct answer.

…class started 5 minutes ago, and you’re still sitting on the toilet. Not because you need to. But because the bathroom stall is the only safe and peaceful place right now.

…you’re calling ALL OF YOUR STUDENTS by the wrong name.

…you waste class time arguing with your students about fat people and exercise and spending money.

…you hand over white board (or chalkboard) and white board marker (or chalk) to your smartest student and tell the kids to play Hangman. You  watch them play this ALL period.

…you’re starting class 5 minutes late and dismissing class 5 minutes early.

The best thing about teacher’s block? It’s never a problem on the weekends. Or during vacation. Or on days off. And THAT is a beautiful thing.

“Teacher, he used me!”

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In the Chinese language, the verb used when they are pushed or bumped into or physically bothered by other people gets translated into English as the word use. As a result, the native English speaker is initially confused upon hearing the sentence, “He used me!” This kind of things happens all the time when moving back and forth between different languages, as humans struggle to learn and translate foreign tongues. In some circles, this specific phenomenon between Chinese and English has been labeled “Chinglish.” It’s the combination of Chinese grammar and English words.

This has everything to do with the classroom, especially my classroom. At my cram school, “Chinglish” is an actual section of our curriculum. We pull specific phrases that are common to ESL learners in Taiwan and teach students how to say it with correct English grammar. “He used me!” is one such phrase.

But my point today is not to unpack the linguistic mysteries of ESL phrasing and Chinglish, as interesting as that may be. My point today is not expound upon the complex cruelties of elementary social dynamics in the classroom. I will do this by examining an event that happend in my classroom today.

I decided to be not just an awesome teacher this week, but a super awesome teacher. I ended up purchasing trendy prizes for my kids, and by trendy I’m talking ANGRY BIRD trendy. My students LOVE angry birds. As an adult statement against their childish trends, I have verbally declared in front of my students that I do not have the angry bird game and that angry birds are dumb and not welcome in my classroom. Almost all other English teachers I’ve talked to have taken the opposite approach.

This kind of thing has no place in my classroom when space is already being occupied by an angry teacher. I show my kids angry!

This kind of thing has no place in my classroom when space is already being occupied by an angry teacher. I show my kids angry!

The trendy purchases I made during a minor change of heart included the red angry bird, the green angry bird and the black angry bird (if I remember correctly). The fourth purchase was this heart shaped little zip-up bag decorated with an adorably abstract Japanese cartoon saying in English, “Stay away from my puppy.” I went trendy. 

I made it luck of the draw. At the end of class, all 7 of my level 1 student’s names were dropped into a can. I had level 3 students draw names and read them aloud. The first winner got first pick. My four lucky students were Duncan, John, Dora, and Tiffany. Duncan is the youngest student, and also the slowest, and all last semester was actually quite the ordeal being his teacher, as academics and socials weren’t always treating him so well. In fact, he gets rather picked on by the other students and all the girls avoid him at all costs unless they get something out of the deal. I hear deals being made all time like “I’ll let you be my friend if…”

I’ve sent many a student into the time out chair in Duncan’s defense, but I haven’t held back on Duncan, either. All these kids have so much to learn about civilly interacting with the environment. But at the end of my day, I was pleased that Duncan was a winner. He dressed up as an angry bird for Halloween!

So I was quite confused when I saw an angry bird-less Duncan walk out of my classroom.

“Duncan, where is your angry bird?”

“I gave it to Gina.”

“Why!!!???”

“Because she want.”

“Duncan! You won that! That was yours! You should not have done that. You are TOO nice to Gina.”

Gina actually happens to be the younger sister of another student who was in my class two years in a row. She’s leader of the female pack and a much harder character than her older sister. She wields a fierce social influence upon all the girls, and all the boys want to be her friend. She’s sharp, too, but she can oh, so cold. When Duncan told me he gave his angry bird to Gina, I knew exactly what kind of deal had been made.

Gina and her sister are two of the students who stay at the school pretty late waiting for their parents to come pick them up, so she’s always there while I’m teaching my junior high class on Friday nights. Before class started, I found Gina and gave her a piece of my mind.

“Gina, I am not happy that Duncan gave you his angry bird. Why did you ask him for it. You can never be mean to him again! You used him.”

“No-”

“Yes! That is what using someone is in English! You used him You know how he is, and so you asked him for his angry bird and he gave it to you because he wants to be your friend. Now, he thinks you are his friend. So, Gina, you always have to be nice to him and sit next to him [at this, Gina cringed a little] because he gave you his angry bird. You used him!”

Gina’s look assured me she understood. For better or for worse, I stay extremely in tune with the social drama of certain students and interfere quite often. The students realize I know exactly what is going on. I see through their games.

“Do you understand? You better give it back to him if you are not going to be nice to him for now on.”

Later, Gina came to find me. “Teacher, what if I gave it to you and you can give it back to Duncan?”

“No, you must give it to him yourself.”

I’m extremely curious as to what the ownership of that particular angry bird (I forget which color) will be next week. Very curious. Something tells me it will change. 

I will not tolerate these subtle behaviors that lead to the mountain of bullying students are too cowardly to stand up to. I will strike down the ring leaders, and I will do it as their TEACHER. Fortunately, in Taiwan, teachers still do have power.

Child Labor

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I’m not a mute or subtle person by any means, so when my dragon boat shoulder (I’m a left sider, so my left shoulder takes the biggest hit) suddenly became mega tight and mega painful, my students noticed. And they heard me verbalize my need for a sledge hammer to just ram right through my shoulder. I even started getting physical about my dilemma, stretching and massaging – trying to relieve the pain. The hammer was going to be the only effective solution.

That hammer became the skillful little fists of every single one of my level 3 students.

The greatest part about the whole ordeal is that I never once made an actual request. The first student to finish his quiz simply came up to have me check it, which is normal classroom procedure, and asked, “Where, Teacher?” I placed my index finger on the spot, and he started hammering.

I literally said to the first student, you need to be strong. STRONGER!

The students ended up developing and sustaining a rather effective “hammering” system. The quiz I was currently checking was the student that was currently hammering. It also became an incentive to finish that quiz. Some of those children were GOOD! Their blows were making these sounds that felt pretty professional. At one point, I was getting simultaneous hammer and massage action.

All my kids got a kick out of it and seemed to enjoy inflicting pain upon me. Yet they understood that I invited this “pain,” so I would even get apologies every now and then when a student felt she might have struck me too hard. I said at one point that I hope they do this for their parents, because it felt AMAZING. Most of them do!

The result of all this free child labor? A much looser shoulder. It was now sore, of course, but the sudden tightness was gone. It was one of the best class periods EVER.

5 Little Monkeys

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Today was an interesting day of class for me. I actually decided to follow the grammar lesson with an application activity. I usually just keep ploughing through book work, which, I realize, can be detrimental to both students and teacher; so I decided to be intentional this time. Categorize it as a “first semester of the year of the snake” kind of thing.

The British (mind you) grammar lesson was the correct usage of questions and answers using the “have got.” After some drawing on the board, some teaching from the front of room, some patrolling of the students’ progress, and checking completed work, I collected all their books and sent them to break. After break time, I instructed them to remove these perforated flash cards from the back of their phonics books. I then had them use them to play this rather non-competitive and mediocre card game  that required card-trading and “Have you got…” question asking. I came up with game off the top of my head. They got incredibly focused (even my energetic ones) on the game and trading and sorting cards that I even let the game cut into snack time. Why stop education when they’re actually enjoying it!

The students kept saying “Do you have…?” (hm, I wonder why!) but being the proper British grammar teacher that I am, I insisted that they use “Have you got…?” It was an activity catered to a specific lesson, besides!

I still gave them their snack time, of course, after which we embarked on our weekly Thursday third period adventure of ABC Mouse. After listening to and watching the song “Ten in a Bed,” I felt inspired to show them

5 little monkeys jumping on a bed

One fell off and bumped his head

Mamma called the doctor and the doctor said

No more monkeys jumping on the bed!

THEY LOVED IT. All for one student, anyway. But as for the other kids, they were singing, clapping, jumping. Totally engaged. I just loved how engaged they were. I need to teach the more English mesmerizing and repetitive chants like this.

My students remind me of those 5 little monkeys jumping on a bed…

first day back

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Today was the first day back after Chinese New Year Vacation. It was the first day of school in the Year of the Snake. SSSSSSsssssssssssSSS!!! The ssssssssspring ssssemesssssster hasssss begun! (Like that alliterative snake-hiss effect? Wait, I just removed the impact by asking you that, didn’t I. Crap.)

I immediately discovered that there can no such thing as fun first day back with my students. I started off (out of necessity of course) with an iron fist, lecturing them about the wrongs they committed last semester and how they SHALL NOT commit them again. “It’s a new year, a new semester, children! You will speak MORE English and be NICER people! Be BETTER than you were last year!” 

The timeout chair was initiated and re-introduced almost right away. I had a student erase pictures of yucky things he was drawing (butts, boobs, butts and boobs pooping) and sent him into time out. He was quite taken back, but the punishment was clear and will be EVER SO SEVERE should I catch him at it again.

I had my level 1 students draw in the margins on every page of their notebooks since these notebooks I am forced to use don’t have any! They’re terrible and do nothing for teaching my students how to write properly, so I decided to have them all do the margins in advance. One student, with fifteen minutes left of class, declared to me that she didn’t want to and will continue the work on Wednesday. I told her that if she doesn’t draw margins for the next fifteen minutes, she won’t be leaving the classroom until 4:15.

Another student suddenly and aggressively kicked the back of another student’s chair. He was immediately sent to the timeout chair and was not released until after I knew his violent and haughty spirit was broken. He was in timeout for about 30 minutes. He finally made the pathetic plea to be able to return to the classroom. I made him wait after his plea and then had a civil conversation with him about his behavior and how he SHALL NEVER KICK ANOTHER STUDENT AGAIN.

I had to lecture all my students about how they SHALL NOT TEAR PAGES OUT OF THEIR NOTEBOOKS. Should they do this, that page will be thrown into the recycle and they must re-write all the work again in their notebook

I did bring some innovative education into the classroom today. I told my students a bit about my travels over the break, teaching them about relevant things that they themselves might run into one day (many of my students travel with their families around Asia and Europe and North America), such as passports and visas and public transportion in other cities and currency exchange rates. This was fun, because I brought these in for them to look at: my passport, Indonesia visa, Hong Kong money and Indonesian money, bus tickets, my octopus card from Hong Kong. They rather enjoyed the hands-on experience.

Of course, it was an exchange, so I got to hear some of all my students’ vacations as well. One girl brought in dried mangos from Cebu for the whole class. She was very excited about the opportunity she had to speak English in the Philippines. I was proud of her. I told her that her English really had improved. It was true.

Gotta love the first day of a new semester. Nineteen more weeks until summer vacation…